Book Review

The Rexall Story: A History of Genius and Neglect

Mickey C. Smith, RPh, PhD
Pharmaceutical Products Press (Haworth Press, Inc.), New York, 2004

This is a delightful story that chronicles the history of Rexall Drug. This fun book takes us down memory lane, while detailing the rise and fall of the Rexall Empire.

It began at the turn of the 20th century: Louis Liggett was 25 years old, and he was selling a patent tonic called Vinol. When he found that some of his agents were selling Vinol at cut-rate prices, he realized that exclusivity, not competition, was the key to increased sales.

In 1902, Liggett recruited 40 druggists to each invest $4,000 in the concept of Rexall, the idea being that Rexall products would be available only to Rexall pharmacies. Charles Walgreen was one of the first franchisees. When he and Liggett had a misunderstanding, Walgreen set out on his own.

The Rexalite (Rexall franchisee) was offered education, marketing, advertising, promotional ideas, employee training, Rexall Ad-Vantages magazine, supportive literature, and exclusive Rexall merchandise.

Rexall’s “One Cent Sale” was a phenomenal sales event that was famous throughout the country. It occurred once a year, and the impact on sales was tremendous. With their soda fountains, drugstores became social centers; in those pre-Starbucks days, customers came to the drugstore for a cup of coffee. The Rexall Train was an impressive traveling convention that toured the US. Rexall advertised on radio and television and sponsored The Phil Harris/Alice Faye Show. When Rexall was at the top of its game, it was a force to be reckoned with.

In 1941, Louis Liggett retired and was succeeded by Joseph Gavin. United Drug (Rexall) owned almost 600 drugstores. There also were approximately 8,000 drugstores that were personally owned by pharmacists, who were franchisees. United Drug also had facilities where they manufactured approximately 5,000 products (e.g., skin creams, lotion, aspirin, pain relievers, laxatives) that were sold in the drugstores. United Drug’s manufacturing plants employed approximately 16,000 employees. In 1943, Justin Dart was elected president of United Drug, and the corporation took a new direction. Many attribute the fall of Rexall to Dart’s leadership. The book details the demise of Rexall to the end.

The author, Mickey Smith, diligently interviews previous Rexalites and tells of their experiences with sensitivity and zest. Louis Liggett was a marketing genius; we are left wondering what Rexall would be like today if Liggett had been at the helm a few more years. This entertaining book, in recounting the history of a phenomenally successful pharmacy business, provides business ideas for pharmacists today.

Reviewed By:  Betty Jo Grajeda, MD
In:  July 2007